Both David Cameron and George Osborne used language of strivers and shirkers in their conference speeches. It’s been nagging me ever since – as I think it might end up being counterproductive.
The rationale is clear: unite the broad group of voters who feel they’re working hard, doing the right thing, playing by the rules etc; become the political voice for those people against those who milk the system; tap into most people’s basic moral sense of how you should get on in life.
This is simple and easy to explain. But I have two doubts.
First, the rhetoric only works if it’s backed up by actual policy.
‘Strivers’ is one of those terms that is so broad as to be effectively meaningless. Again that’s partly the whole point – appeal to a common sense of fair play – but what happens when people who would readily identify themselves as ‘strivers’ see their lives affected, not just those of people they see as ‘shirkers’?
National insurance contributions have gone up, for example: effectively an extra 1p on income tax for working people. If you’re a middle-income earner then the threshold for the upper income tax bracket has fallen. If you’re a low earner, working tax credits (yes, that’s working) were frozen in last year’s Autumn Statement. Changes to your tax credits will have undone the good impact of the rise in income tax threshold. Your council tax benefit is also being cut – disproportionately so for working people, given the protection outlined for pensioners. Which is an issue in itself – how does your average striver feel about the continued protection of universal pensioner benefits?
It’s not that any of these things are necessarily the wrong thing to do. Each of these decisions might in themselves be required. But that’s my point: dividing the population into ‘strivers’ and ‘shirkers’ rather implies necessary pain will only be felt by those doing the wrong thing. It won’t be, and a narrative emphasising we’re-all-in-this-together captures that much better than one of strivers Vs shirkers. Maybe no-one pays that much attention to the detail of policy, or conference speeches, and they won’t notice – but it certainly feels odd to send out the message that only the workshy need worry.
The second doubt is a bit less immediate: and it’s that the theory behind the DWP’s own reforms rather removes the distinction between strivers and shirkers. Universal Credit sweeps up 7 different benefits into 1, and in doing so abolishes some of the distinctions between working and non-working benefits – it replaces both working tax credit and child tax credit, and both income support and jobseekers’ allowance, for example.
The whole idea of the credit is that at the bottom end of the labour market, where work might come and go and people might increase or decrease hours from month to month, people are always better off if they work more. Its way of doing that is to make state benefits and earned income work alongside each other. Future Governments will find it much harder to distinguish between benefit recipients who are working and benefit recipients who are not. Curious, then, for the Government use language which is not really in the spirit of its own reforms.